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SKODA v. FONTANI

June 26, 1981

JAMES SKODA AND MICHAEL CALLAHAN, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CARL FONTANI, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Aspen, District Judge:

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

On June 9, 1980, a jury returned a verdict in this civil rights case in favor of the plaintiffs in the amount of $1.00 each. On September 10, 1980, this Court denied plaintiffs' motion for attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 on the grounds that, based upon the token amount of the award, plaintiffs are not truly the "prevailing" parties within the meaning of the statute. On April 2, 1981, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, 646 F.2d 1193 (7th Cir.), reversed and remanded, stating:

  On remand, the district court should consider whether
  any special circumstances exist, and if not, should
  decide the appropriate amount of the fee award in
  light of these decisions.

The "special circumstances," however, referred to by the Circuit Court were, in this Court's view, set forth in our June 9, 1980 order:

  Plaintiffs sought $200,000 in their complaint. Prior
  to trial they would have settled for $3,000 and could
  have settled for at least $1,500. The jury apparently
  further discounted the value of plaintiffs' claims in
  awarding them $1.00 each.

The Circuit Court apparently did not agree that the foregoing scenario justified a denial by this Court of an award of attorneys' fees and costs. Therefore, in response to the remand order it now would be fruitless for this Court to reiterate these same factors as a basis for "special circumstances." Instead, pursuant to Circuit Court's opinion, we must now "decide the appropriate amount of the fee award."

Plaintiffs' counsel request attorneys' fees in the amount of $10,441.25 and costs of $1,586.12. The Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act provides that in civil rights actions under § 1983 and certain other statutes, "the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs." 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (1976). This discretion is limited to a degree, in that a successful plaintiff "should ordinarily recover an attorney's fee unless special circumstances would render such an award unjust." Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., 390 U.S. 400, 88 S.Ct. 964, 19 L.Ed.2d 1263 (1968); Busche v. Burkee, 649 F.2d 509 (7th Cir. 1981); Murphy v. Kolovitz, 635 F.2d 662, 663 (7th Cir. 1981). The purpose of the Act "is to permit and encourage the redress of the civil rights violations of victims but not to create a civil rights fee bank to be liberally drawn upon by lawyers for their own welfare," and the fee award determination is to be based on the totality of the case in light of the purpose of the Act. Coop v. City of South Bend, 635 F.2d 652, 655 (7th Cir. 1980).

The task of determining an appropriate award of attorney's fees in a given case is a complex task involving "the coalescence of many considerations including the reasonableness of the time spent by counsel, the extent of counsel's success and the complexity of the case." Waters v. Wisconsin Steel Works, 502 F.2d 1309, 1322 (7th Cir. 1974). Moreover, attorney's fees are not to be determined solely on the basis of a formula applying "hours spent times billing rate," although that may be a convenient starting point from which adjustments can be made. Id. Other elements to be considered include the following:

  (1) The time and labor required, the novelty and
  difficulty of the questions involved, and the skill
  requisite to perform the legal service properly.
  (2) The likelihood, if apparent to the client, that
  the acceptance of the particular employment will
  preclude other employment by the lawyer.
  (3) The fee customarily charged in the locality for
  similar legal services.

(4) The amount involved and the results obtained.

  (5) The time limitations imposed by the client or by
  the ...

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